Frozen

By Widdicombe; Elizabeth | The New Yorker, October 10, 2016 | Go to article overview

Frozen


Widdicombe, Elizabeth, The New Yorker


Frozen

On the day of the first Presidential debate, on Long Island, another lurid political spectacle was under way thirty miles due west: the Bridgegate trial, in the Newark, New Jersey, federal courthouse. An aide to Governor Chris Christie and an appointee at the Port Authority stand accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge, for four days in September of 2013, to orchestrate a massive traffic jam as a form of political reprisal. The government's key witness, David Wildstein, took the stand last week.

Wildstein, a former high-school classmate of Christie (whose nickname back then was Buttocks), was Bridgegate's mastermind and Christie's "enforcer" inside the Port Authority. Defense lawyers have portrayed him as both a villain ("vicious guy," "bully," "miserable prick") and a stooge. Michael Baldassare, a defense lawyer, called him, "a ventriloquist doll sitting on Christopher J. Christie's lap." Short and hunched, with a thin beard and a baggy suit, Wildstein spoke softly as he described using the Port Authority--with its sprawling network of bridges, tunnels, and airports, and its almost five billion dollars in revenue--as a political "goody bag."

To recap: back in 2013, Christie was soliciting endorsements from Democratic mayors, to aid in his reelection bid. (He had his eye on the Presidency, too.) Mayors who said yes received carrots: a seat in the Governor's box at sports events, a piece of steel from the World Trade Center, and, in one case, thirty-five thousand dollars earmarked for the collection of goose droppings. Mayors who said no--among them the mayor of Fort Lee, the town at the foot of the bridge--were subjected to a punishment that Wildstein referred to as "radio silence." The first time Wildstein used this term in court, Lee Cortes, a lawyer for the prosecution, asked what it meant. Wildstein explained that certain people's messages to the Port Authority, "whether it was phone calls, texts, e-mails, whatever the form of communication--there would be no response."

Wildstein told the court that Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, was on the radio-silence list. In July, 2013, Fulop was scheduled to attend a Port Authority meet and greet known as Mayor's Day, until Bridget Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff, called Wildstein and told him to cancel it.

"Miss Kelly said that Mayor Fulop was being 'frozen out,' " Wildstein testified. The court's TV screens then displayed a series of increasingly anxious e-mails from Fulop to a contact at the Port Authority; they were forwarded to Christie's aides, who wrote back, "Radio silence," and, "He's getting a little snippy. …

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